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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Issue 143: October 2006

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News]

The real winter begins this month, the courgettes in the garden are dying a slow death, the last outdoor green tomatoes will soon be brought in to ripen or, in many cases, go bad before they do (though fried green tomatoes are tasty too, or a few sliced finely in salads). And work and other routines gather even more pace. As I have said before, the seasons now meet in our garden in way they didn't before global warming took hold; our schizostylis (the politically incorrect English language name, kaffir lily, indicates it comes from South Africa) stopped flowering by late-November two decades ago - now a few blooms straggle on well past Christmas to meet the first of the croci/crocuses in the early spring. The proof of global warming? It's here in our Belfast garden, and a later first frost in the autumn/winter as well.

Into The Wes
So said the inscription on a pub gable wall as we were actually leaving the west after an autumn/September break walking and cycling in Galway and Mayo, though fortunately or unfortunately Kerry made mayonnaise of Mayo in the all-Ireland Football Final in September. Prior to this final, it was amazing to see the 'green and red of Mayo' (cf Saw Doctors) on so many houses or in so many gardens, and not just on houses but in fields, on cars, you name it. We saw one old car decorated in green and red squares, and another car that was red anyway which had its tyres and hub caps painted green. The solidarity even spread across into Roscommon where some near the border with Mayo flew not only the Roscommon flag but Mayo's as well.

We got some wonderful autumn weather, as good or possibly even better than much of August, and we were even too warm with just one layer on top striding up mountains and watching the wind whip up a wall of spray in a mountain lake in front of cliffs two or three hundred metres high. It's strange really. If you (for which read 'me') find yourself in another country alone with nature, and nobody else around, you marvel at it and your luck to be so alone. But in Ireland you can often take it for granted - there were we on part of the Western Way and there was nobody else around for at least a mile or two (but plenty of sheep who in places, through overgrazing for which humans can be blamed rather than the sheep, some of the bog was degraded in a variety of ways). It's an amazing feeling to commune with nature [you commune-ist you - Ed]. And, bog degradation not excepted, it's easily done in Ireland. Even beautiful beaches can be had to yourself (but then I remember family summer holidays where the children had all their wet weather gear on and were still cold - in July).

We had cycled by Lough Mask before but this time we cycled around it, maybe 70 - 75 kms, and it was very enjoyable except for the part of about 11 kms going north from Ballinrobe to Partry where for most of this distance it is very busy and narrow and sometimes felt a bit scary with the traffic zooming by. The only hilly part is on the south west, which we took first, going anticlockwise, though admittedly after that, moving towards Ballinrobe you are away from the lough and cannot see it and are conscious of it only as a gap in the mid distance (no hills, no structures visible there). And staying on the west shore of Mask on a clear night with a full moon was really magical, as was passing the shores of the Corrib at Cornamona and when we stopped near Headfort, admittedly on the previous moonlit night.

I can't remember if I'm told you about our 'Walk one way' method to avoid having to do a loop when hill walking, using both a car and bicycle(s), for this you would need both [I think at this stage you've told us everything at least once - Ed] [So you keep saying! - Billy]. First thing is to choose your route carefully so that your points A (start) and B (finish) are accessible by both car and bicycle. We prefer to walk more uphill and cycle more downhill so we take the bicycles in the car to the highest point (B, the walk finish), leave the car, and cycle to A where we lock the bicycles to an immovable object or well out of the way, and start our walk to B. On arrival in B we pick up the car and then go to get the bicycles, which, if carefully planned, can be on the way home. It works well. If you take a swim while you're at it I suppose you could have your own individual triathlon. If you're into hill walking you can try it sometime though if you have more than one car, or a non-walking driver, there are various possibilities with that too. Of course with two groups of cyclists (same numbers both ways!) you could also do it by going on the same route from opposite ends and swapping keys half way (but meeting each other is a necessity and needs careful planning unless you have two sets of keys!) and then taking a different bicycle 'home'.

Long division - divided education in the North

There is a periodic defence of Catholic education by leaders in the Catholic church and rejection that the Catholic church education system is divisive. Bishop Patrick Walsh gave just this defence in June (Irish News 16/6/06) when he said "There are overtones in the word 'segregation' which we in the Catholic sector find offensive." So what else can we call the reality of divided education? Divisive? Apartheid? Separate? Sectarian? 'Segregated' seems a mild term. But I think it is important to remember that the division is two-sided; if the Catholic church said 'yes' to integrated education, you'd have many Prods running for the hills fast, i.e. they would opt out. The segregated education system is sometimes used as a stick to beat the Catholic church with, yes, that is true, but both sides bear responsibility for the division.

Let's take a couple of cases. A bit over a decade ago two of my children were walking into Belfast town centre, aged around 9 and 11, to meet one of their parents there. At an interface they were challenged to give what school they attended. One was hit hard on the face by boys a few years older, and they risked worse. The younger of my children there gave his school name - which turned out to be a 'right' name because it was Catholic and they were not attacked any more. These were Catholic kids who had seen (my) younger kids emerge from what is a Protestant area while they were en route through to town. This was a clear case of Catholic sectarianism among young teenagers.

Then in the early summer this year we had the publicised case of a fifteen year old Protestant boy injured while heading home on the bus after a GCSE exam in Glengormley. He was set upon by a group of Catholic school students (without any previous interaction and only knowing what school he was from); the attacked boy's mother reckoned he could have been killed and whether that is true he certainly risked serious injury. He was saved by a 17 year old Catholic girl who intervened and stopped the attack. She pushed the boys off and allowed the attacked Protestant boy and his friends to escape. Maybe the 'Catholic' school ethos had motivated the 17 year old girl to intervene but it certainly did nothing for the Catholic boys in the two cases mentioned. And these cases are not atypical.

Perhaps there is a special Catholic ethos in school. Perhaps it does work for some schools students. The Catholic primary school my children attended usually had a very caring attitude, and it had a mixed social intake too, but I could not say that the effect would have been any different to a caring, state/Protestant school. However I would feel that the overall effect of having a divided school system is negative and far outweighs any positives that any special segregated system can provide. If the kids mentioned above had all gone to the same schools, or who had friends who went to someone else's schools, they would surely think rather harder about attacking someone for their religious label, if they would think about it at all.

There is a danger in Northern Ireland that sectarianism can be thought of only as a Protestant disease. This is dangerous because it lets Catholics off the hook and removes the need to look at Catholic prejudices. There is a difference, yes, in that nationalist ideology is more inclusive ('if you're not a unionist we expect you to identify with us') and left of centre, in general. But racist attacks happen in Catholic areas as well as Protestant areas, and Catholics can make assumptions about what others believe which are far from the truth, or not realise they are doing things which others find objectionable or just insensitive. I have explored before Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich's assertion that Protestant sectarianism is religious and Catholic sectarianism political (NN 134) and I don't want to go into that again, and there certainly are differences in pattern, but living in Northern Ireland makes dealing with sectarianism a fact of life - either through being passively or actively sectarian, or in taking a stand to be anti-sectarian.

Of course there are complexities to the situation including ones of what education is about, class, commitment, relationships, academic learning, leadership and cooperative skills. Losing specifically Catholic schools would make religious education and preparation for first communion and confirmation more difficult for the Catholic church. It could (and can in integrated schools) still be done in school by special arrangement, while in Protestant churches preparation for confirmation (which usually coincides with 'first communion') takes place in Sunday Schools, i.e. outside of school hours.

The integrated education sector in Norn Iron is only 5% of the total (admittedly grown from a formal 0% twenty-five years ago) and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future as school numbers decline and there is more and more pressure on numbers, especially in a situation with so many different kinds of schools (Protest/Catholic/integrated, grammar (academic), secondary, and often boys/girls, as well as a small but growing Irish language sector). Recently new integrated schools have not received funding. How you move from a segregated system that most people tend to support in practice to integration is not easy but a much higher proportion of parents support the idea of integrated education so that can be built on. The fact that integrated schools are comprehensive (all-ability) is also important to me in that they are integrated on ability as well as religion - the 'middle classes' in Norn Iron have had a bit of a backlash against the idea of doing away with selection at age 11. But most children who currently who pass the to-be-replaced-by-something-or-other 11+ exam (that cruellest and most vile of exams, telling most children at the age of 11 that they have 'failed') tend to go for the 'academic' option. There is also a small multi-denominational school movement in the Republic.

The division in Northern Ireland is multi-faceted and certainly not easy to disentangle. It would be wrong to try to put all the 'integration' eggs in the 'integrated education' basket when questions of youth provision, housing, personal security, employment, community relations strategy abound, apart altogether for the need for an effective political system where representatives of the different parties pull together and would have a knock-on effect over time in encouraging cooperation at all levels. But it would be hard, looking at the divisions which exist in Northern Ireland, not to draw the conclusion that it would be better for society if all children and young people were educated together so that they did have close contact, and more opportunity for friendships, with 'the other side'. That may not coincide with what the Catholic church wants from its educational system, and it may not coincide with what some Protestant churches or Protestants would want if it came to the bit, but there is a question of which is more important in the Northern Ireland situation - churches having their 'safe' and divided system or facilitating the development of friendships for the future in a society which has massive fault lines.

I know what I would draw as the humane and Christian conclusion. Jesus said something about the Sabbath (God's laws) being made for man (humanity) and not the other way around. So the churches in a society which has had a good stab (sic) at destroying itself need to make radical decisions which may be difficult but which are for the good of the whole of society.

Putting it under your shamat - but not brushing it under
What is it that makes one symbol successful and, well, symbolic, and another never catches on? Take the CND symbol; it is widely known in many countries of the world, communicates 'peace' and often its 'anti-nuclear weapons' origin, and is easily reproduced (a circle and a few lines). Incidentally the CND symbol's origins are easily traced by doing a web search, and if you don't have a reference to hand, it was designed originally by an English guy named Gerald Holtom in 1958 based on the semaphore signals for 'N' (nuclear) and 'D' disarmament - though some Christian conservatives have interpreted it spuriously as a 'broken cross'! Which says more about their politics and conspiracy theories than anything else.

The 'Black shamrock' symbol, of recent origin in Ireland - or should I say Derry - is obviously not so well known but has achieved quite some currency in peace and anti-war circles in Ireland and sometimes further afield as a symbol of opposition to Irish involvement in the war in Iraq - particularly through the use of Shannon airport by the USA military. It took an obvious Irish symbol - the shamrock - and gave it just a little twist of being black - to relaunch it as having an anti-war connotation. It is downloadable from the Black Shamrock website at and you can order button badges from the same source. Given the widespread opposition to the Irish government giving carte blanche to the USA in its war effort at Shannon, it is the right symbol at the right time to communicate "I oppose Irish involvement in the Iraq war and particularly the use of Shannon airport". I hope you've got yours.

But for every symbol that is successful, or has success thrust upon it, there are surely many more that don't make it. Even successful symbols are not always understood. The beloved, and common broken rifle symbol (it is the symbol of the War Resisters International which INNATE has links with) is open to misinterpretation. In a nonverbal exchange a few decades ago with a (north) Vietnamese hero of the war against the South Vietnam regime and the USA, when he saw my broken rifle badge he raised his hands in the air as if wielding a rifle in triumph; I indicated non-verbally with a swipe of the hand, no, and then portrayed a breaking movement! He got the message.

Then locally in Norn Iron we also have the 'shamat', which in its original guise as an actual hat I have seen on its originator (Drew McClean) at a peace or anti-war rally - a multicoloured shamrock-hat, the term being a shortening of the two words into one. Recently I came across white shamrock badges, produced some time ago, with ''SHAMAT' written on them, which set me off on this train of thought about symbols, and you can explore the thinking of this one at However 'shamat' also has a host of other connotations - as surnames presumably of Middle Eastern origin, as the name of an Argentinian rock group, as part of the name of a place in Syria (Khan Abu Shamat) or Lebanon, the name of a Middle Eastern dancer in the USA, a sufi in the Middle East, a Hebrew word meaning "a primitive root; to fling down; incipiently to jostle; figuratively, to let alone, desist, remit discontinue, overthrow, release, let rest, shake, stumble, throw down", a temple prostitute in the legends of Mesopotamia, a kibbutz set up in 1948, a fictional character, a word in Bollywood lyrics......the amazing list of different connotations just goes on [well, it does show you can copy down from the internet - Ed] [As I say, I do it so you don't have to! - Billy].

'The shamat' of Norn Iron has never made it as a peace symbol and I think the chances of it doing so are remote. It is not necessarily too 'way out', it is just something that didn't grab people's attention sufficiently, or if it did then not as something they wanted to copy and use. Stranger things have become symbols! Consider the 'red hand' of Ulster (see my Colm in NN114) - although maybe that's an appropriate symbol for somewhere that has just come through a bloody conflict. And meanwhile other symbols, such as the dove, frequently become clichés - getting the paramilitary response in the North to 'shove your doves'. But original designs of doves looking a bit more active/dynamic/different can be effective too.

So, to summarise, what makes an effective political symbol? 1) It comes at the right time - people want to identify with a particular cause, and 2) is an extension of No.1 - People are happy with it as a symbol of that cause, and something they can wear or display with pride and identification, 3) It is significant and dynamic in some way - wishy-washy doves and pastel colours are unlikely to be it (not impossible according to the context, but unlikely), 4) It is often simple to reproduce, and easily recognisable.

In a world of words, just as in a world of illiteracy, symbols can be potent reminders of possibilities and identities, positive and negative. The swastika was, after all, an ancient religious symbol until the Nazis nabbed it making it impossible to use in most contexts for a thousand years (the thousand year non-reich). Using symbols creatively is part of the challenge of communicating effectively so maybe I should join in also saying 'shove your doves' and use something more challenging and effective.

A rose by any other name....wouldn't smell at all
We sat in the foyer of the fairly fancy hotel before the meeting was due to start. The whites irises (no, not my eyes) sat in water in round, tall vases (or vaizes or vauzes). A member of the hotel staff came around and was taking them away and replacing them. Certainly they were getting fresh water, possibly the irises being replaced, maybe they had begun to wither. A colleague challenged our belief that these were fresh flowers. Not a bit of freshness - they were as artificial as they come. But with them sitting in water, and the water being replaced (as it would have to be periodically to avoid it going off), the illusion was complete. Is it not amazing how we can buy into an illusion like this by such a simple trick as having fresh water? And what does our acceptance of artificiality say? Well, I suppose it's better than fresh blooms being flown in and contributing to greenhouse gases.

- Well, that's me for another month, although at the rate this autumn seems to be going it will just feel like tomorrow when I'm back again. Hoping the autumn is treating you well, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

Copyright INNATE 2021